Tom Avey started as an accompanist in his local church. “That’s my training for just about everything I’ve done in this job,” he confessed.
In July, Tom steps down after 23 years as Fellowship Coordinator, serving the Charis Fellowship by planning conferences and retreats, facilitating Fellowship Council and corporation meetings, serving as a center for information in the Fellowship, and finding ways to connect pastors and leaders wherever possible.
“An accompanist’s job is to make the soloist sound better than they would without you,” he stressed. “Sometimes you have to lead them by giving them a beat or a melody line, but you always want them to sound good.”
It was at the Grace Brethren Church in Maitland, Fla., where he first started his accompaniment gig by playing the piano for the choir and soloists, in addition to congregational singing. It was also where he felt the call to full-time ministry.
He remembers being irritated at last-minute requests to use his talents. “I didn’t have time to prep, so it would sound bad,” he recalled. “But the Lord convicted me about that. I remember distinctly saying to God, ‘my piano, as meager as it is, is Yours, not mine. I will never say no to playing the piano for somebody.’”
That pledge was the seed that God used as he became involved in the leadership of the youth group and other activities at the church, and eventually leadership roles in the Charis Fellowship.
Tom was 16 when he first attended the Maitland church with his parents, who had just moved to Florida for his father’s job with the Bendix Corporation. His mom and dad moved on to a different church, but he stayed. It was his initial connection to the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, now Charis Fellowship, and it was where he met his wife, Sandi.
“Our dating days were in ministry,” he recalled. The church had a Saturday night ministry called Youth Ranch, which was patterned after, but not affiliated with, a similar program sponsored by Florida Bible College. More than 60 young people would attend the ministry at the Maitland church each weekend.
The couple married in 1971. “She graduated from high school, went to [Brethren National] Youth Conference to quiz for [the] Florida [District] that summer, and was married September 1,” said Tom. “I was 20 and she was 18.”
Within a few weeks, they moved to Winona Lake, Ind., so Tom could attend Grace College.
“We were [in Winona Lake] for four years, then the Maitland Grace Brethren Church was looking for a youth and music director, so I went back,” he added. The plan was to eventually return to Indiana to finish college and seminary. But God had other plans.
After serving at Maitland, he and Sandi attended the Grace Brethren Church in Orlando, Fla., about half an hour away where Tom would often play the piano. When Ed Jackson, the pastor, announced his plans to return to ministry in Alaska, he recommended Tom as his replacement. “I had never preached before in my life,” Tom noted. But the congregation had confidence and extended a call to him to be their pastor.
“I was there for six years,” he recalls, acknowledging. “It was a good time, but I grew it from [an attendance of] 110 to 60.”
He’d already given his resignation to the elder board at Orlando when he received a call from Jerry Young, pastor at the Grace Brethren Church in Lititz, Pa., in 1986. It was an invitation to interview for the position of church administrator, which today might be considered an executive pastor position.
“We spent a couple of days there and decided to do it if he offered [it],” Tom remembered. They moved in January, arriving in time to kick off a $3,500,000 building project at the church. He spent the next 11½ years there, while he and Sandi raised their four children in the community.
“There came a point where I had this feeling that if something else came along, I could do it,” he said.
A new position for a Fellowship Coordinator had been created within the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. It would be a full-time position, building on what Charles Ashman had done part-time for many years as Conference Coordinator. National ministries pledged to support the new position, along with an increase in Fellowship fees of $1 per person in local churches.
The new role was offered to Tom, and he recognized it was time to expand his accompanist role.
“I love the Fellowship,” he said. “It had a huge impact on my life. Everything I know and do is wrapped up in this Fellowship since I was 16 years old,” he added. Tom felt there was a need for the new position and found that it fit his gifting.
“I’m administratively wired,” he acknowledged. “My favorite Bible misquote is ‘where two or three are gathered together, someone has to administrate.’ I like to get things done.”
“I discovered that Tom was a model of organized flexibility,” said Bob Fetterhoff, who served as moderator/executive director from 2011-2013. “If I didn’t know what to do, or what I wanted, Tom already had a plan in mind that would probably work. If I knew what I wanted, he was flexible enough to adjust his preference or approach to meet any reasonable request I had. He was always kind, considerate, and willing to try some new idea. Furthermore, he was not threatened when a new idea surfaced that could have impacted his own comfort.” (Bob served many years as senior pastor at Grace Church, Wooster, Ohio, and is now the pastor of development there.)
Bartley Sawatsky, who served as executive director from 2014-2016 and is the lead pastor at Renew Church, Mississauga, Ontario, found the same flexibility. He remembers a scouting trip to Washington, D.C., to plan national conference, which was held there in 2014. As they shot footage for promotional videos, Bartley remembered some of the “silly ideas” he had, yet Tom played along.
“I look back on that and laugh, and I’m reminded of just how flexible Tom was with me and some of my strange ideas,” he added.
“Tom has served in a place where he has needed to take so many people’s feelings into consideration but seeing him be able to have fun like that speaks a lot to his wisdom and discernment,” Bartley said. “I also recall many times where I could see Tom wrestling with complex issues and working behind the scenes to help various parties in the Fellowship work through difficult matters. He truly has been the glue that has held things together in so many ways.”
Bartley is not the only one who has observed that Tom has been the “relational glue” that encircles the Fellowship.
“He has connected people who needed to be connected and has also kept people connected that needed to be kept connected,” noted Phil Sparling, currently executive director of the Charis Fellowship and pastor of Grace Community Church, Auburn, Calif. “Working with autonomous churches and ministries without any true authority over them is a very difficult assignment. Tom has learned that the true power to get people to work together is relationship. I can see how this approach has become our Fellowship’s widespread currency for collaboration.”
Galen Wiley, now retired from full-time ministry, was on the leadership team that hired Tom and was among the first, as moderator (now executive director), to work with him.
“I appreciated him so much as he worked alongside me in planning and leading such an exciting conference that year in Columbus, Ohio,” remembered Galen, who led the Fellowship in 1998-1999. “I especially appreciated how he helped me in so many ways at conference and Focus Retreats on exalting Christ as we focused on the phenomenal reality of ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’”
As an accompanist, Tom has played a part in shaping the Charis Fellowship.
“He managed to learn the names and responsibilities of most pastors and missionaries connected to our Fellowship in the U.S. and around the world,” observed Bob. “He leveraged this personal connection to gain support for the launch of the new Charis Fellowship. Frankly, I believe God used Tom Avey strategically to keep us united in years when we could have splintered into many different camps.”
“Tom didn’t wield power, but he had a lot because of his role,” added Bartley. “But he always used it for what he thought was best for the Fellowship. I’m not sure where our Fellowship would be today without his sacrifice.”
From his office in Winona Lake, Ind., Tom has led from behind, but he’s quick to admit he had help in the form of first Sandy Barrett, who served until 2018 and in the last few years, Sharmion Bowell. Both women have been strategic in managing day-to-day operations, facilitating conference planning, and overseeing the myriad of other details associated with leading a group of churches.
“Sandy’s excellent and tireless work was a crucial part of the national office,” stressed Tom. “Sandy has been succeeded by Sharmion, who continues that tradition of excellence and dedication.”
Tom is reticent to consider that there might be other things he could have accomplished in his role. “I don’t tend to think about things that way,” he admits. “I’m sure if I scratched my head long enough, there’s some stuff we could have gotten at.”
Outside the office, he served on the Grace College and Seminary board of trustees for 15 years, including six as its chair. During his tenure, Dr. Ron Manahan was selected to succeed Dr. John Davis as president. The school recently recognized Tom with an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.
“Tom served the Lord in local church ministry, was the Charis Fellowship leader for nearly 24 years, and was on the Grace Board of Trustees for 15 years (including serving several years as the chair),” said Dr. Bill Katip, Grace College and Seminary president. “It was our privilege to honor Tom in this way.”
When he’s not traveling throughout the Fellowship, Tom and Sandi are involved at Community of Hope Grace Brethren Church in Columbia City, Ind. (Jeremy Wike, senior pastor). He serves on the elder board and helps in other ways administratively, while the two are part of a small group.
Now that retirement takes him off the road, he looks forward to more involvement in Community of Hope. Otherwise, he is not sure what he’ll be doing, though he intends to work some, including consulting for the Charis Fellowship. He notes that he and Sandi will celebrate their 48th anniversary this year. “For most of those years, I’ve never been sure what I was going to be when I grow up,” he said. “None of this was part of a plan.”
Part of the plan, though, is spending time with their four children and nine grandchildren.
Some say his absence will leave a hole.
“I’m not sure how we are going to manage that without him, but I’m optimistic that we will find ways,” concluded Bartley. “We will never be able to replace Tom and the range of skills he brought to the job, but I am prayerful that we will find ways to keep being a family that is committed to one another. I trust that the new leaders will draw upon Tom’s knowledge and experience. His understanding of leadership is strong having served in the ‘second chair’ for so many years.”